August 2011 Newsletter
Sunday, July 24, 2011
(November 25, 1951 - July 23, 2011)
I grew up in a Boston suburb with green lawns and good schools. Come graduation day, I was your typical fiery, young man, ready to reject everything and set out for parts unknown to make my own destiny. Newly enamored with the Edward Abbey's tales of adventure in the American Southwest, I longed for an exotic landscape worlds away from manicured suburbia. I became so infatuated with the desert that my passion for Texas songwriters (Terry Allen, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and many others) quickly eclipsed my passion for Aerosmith. I was aware of the regional folk scene by this time, but it seemed to me that "real" country songs all came from the "real country," a place far away from New England.
I headed north to Maine for college, partly because it seemed wilder and more vast than Massachusetts, like the Texas of New England. I mail ordered the latest obscure country records I could not find at the local record store, such as Robert Earl Keen's latest record "A Bigger Piece Of Sky." Like a true liner notes junkie, I scoured the lyrics and credits, noting familiar players and songwriters, then I studied the album artwork. Cowboys and horses? Check. Sagebrush and desert? Check. This was the real deal. However, looking at the picture of Robert Earl I was shocked to see his shirt unbuttoned just enough to reveal he was wearing a Bill Morrissey t-shirt underneath. Discovering Robert Earl's respect for Morrissey was a true revelation, it single-handedly validated New England as credible geography for American Roots Music.
When I began to look for roots music closer to home, it was obvious that Bill Morrissey was king. His songs were like Elmer Rising's pen and ink masterpieces--you could admire each confidently executed lyrical brushstroke and melodic twist on the finest of scales, and never diminish the overall impression of their honesty and truth. At the height of his powers, on 1989's Standing Eight, 1992's Inside and 1993's Night Train, each Bill Morrissey record contained several songs that each would have been the life's work of a lesser artist. There may have been others writing songs equally detailed as "These Cold Fingers," "The Man From Out Of Town" or "Birches," but none were better.
I was lucky enough to meet Bill when I opened a show for him on an Easter Sunday 10 or 11 years ago. After the concert, I was invited back to Cliff Eberhardt's house to hang out with my hero. Of course, "hang out" meant drinking and playing impromptu versions of everything from the Beatles, Stones and Chuck Berry to Gershwin, Porter and Mississippi John Hurt until the wee hours of the morning. Much of that night remains a blur, but I remember feeling so proud when I held my own on guitar and chimed in on harmonies, like a pupil who has pleased his teacher. It was a true education, and by night's end Bill was carrying on like an old Kung Fu master and calling me "Grasshopper." He trotted that nickname out every time I saw him for the next 10 years.
I shared a night with Bill just last year up in Portland Maine. I was getting ready to go on when he approached me and suggested that I sing "Birches," perhaps his best known song, in my set. He still loved the song, but had sung it so many times he didn't feel he was doing it justice anymore. It deserved better and he thought I was up for the job. I was honored but very saddened; it felt like something was being passed, something I didn't want but couldn't give back. I went out and sang "Birches," then backed up Bill for the latter half of his set. We shook hands at the end of the night and talked of doing more shows together. Then I drove away and never saw him again.
Listening to my old Morrissey records over the last few days feels like reconnecting with an old teacher. Like all great art, I continue to peel away the layers, find new details and imagery to appreciate, each song remains a bottomless well of inspiration. I realize now that seeing Robert Earl Keen wearing that Bill Morrissey t-shirt gave me a sort of permission. Without Bill, there would be no River Road, Bend In The River, The Farewell Ball, or Hartfordtown, among others. Bill's music gave me the courage to stay in New England, to find my musical inspiration close to home, to explore the rich variety of roots music from a proudly Yankee perspective. As I continue my work, I suspect I will always feel a bit like a student with much to learn. So from Grasshopper to the Master, thank you Bill for all you taught and continue to teach me. Rest in peace, and send back some more of those "Letters From Heaven" every once and awhile.
LIVE IN MONSON BENEFIT EP: I am just over 1/3 of the way to my $1,000 goal for a donation to the victims of the recent tornadoes that hit Monson, Massachusetts. You can pick up the new Live In Monson digital-only EP at my Bandcamp site for $5 (or donate more if you desire). The EP features live versions of a few tracks from The Memorial Hall Recordings (originally recorded in Monson) and a couple of songs from my first two records. I give away music away all the time, so this is a chance to pony up for a great cause. Even if you don't really do the digital download thing so much yet, someday you will. Pick up Live In Monson and start your digital collection now!
ALASTAIR MOOCK VIDEO: My friend Alastair Moock has a brand new record coming out this fall. It's called "These Are My Friends" and it will appeal to kids from 1-92, it's great. I play a bunch of instruments and sing a duet on rockabilly version of the Sesame Street classic "Ladybug Picnic." Just for fun, I recently made an animated video for one of the shorter tracks on the record. Click here to check it out.
MP3 of the MONTH: It's only fitting this month's track be a Bill Morrissey song. This is an acoustic trio version of Bill's "Summer Night" from a show I did at the Iron Horse (Northampton MA) back in 2003. It features Jim Henry on dobro and Jim Lamond on bass, and it's available for free for the month of August exclusively on my Bandcamp site. Enjoy!
Um, I don't have any shows this month! How did that happen? I guess you're off the hook. Go to the beach, OD on homegrown tomatoes, enjoy some ice cream, nap in a hammock or something. You deserve some time off...from me. Just be sure to tune back in next month as things will pick up considerably in the fall.
Aug 4 - Soulfest, Gilford NH (w/Jake Armerding)
Aug 20 - Jonathan's, Ogunquit ME (w/Lori McKenna)
Aug 26 - Tupelo Music Hall, White River Junction VT (w/Lori McKenna)
ON THE HORIZON:
Sept 11 - House Concert, West Barnstable MA
Sept 25 - Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton MA (with Kim Richey!)